Opinion: Google Announced Everything But Innovation At I/O 2016

As you are probably acutely aware, Google I/O took place last week and with it came a number of announcements. By next year, everything that was announced will either be available, disregarded or being upgraded and whichever the outcome, those announcements will be old news. That said, Google I/O is an ideal opportunity for everyone involved with Google (in-house, developers, the media, and consumers) to all get on the same page. To all have a clearer understanding of where Google is going in the next twelve months, the direction of Google. However, things were anything but straightforward at this year's I/O event and when it comes to the ‘direction’, you would be hard pressed to really identify what it is or where Google is going. Yes, there was much talk about connectivity and the reach of machine learning but was there actually anything of real substance. Anything innovative at all?

One of the early announcements that came through during the keynote was that of the new Google Assistant. While Sundar Pichai did well to convince those watching that this is the future with the Assistant’s ability to really connect all of your Google world, is it not just Google Now? Yes a souped-up Google Now, but Google Now nonetheless. Not exactly innovative stuff really. Yes evolutionary, but only in a natural and progressive way,  not revolutionary. Google did also announce 'Google Home' and this is new, sort of. It is new for Google anyway but not so new in the grand scale of things. While this was a rumored product prior to the start of Google I/O, it was also one which largely came with reports that unanimously described it as an Amazon Echo competitor. And that alone not only highlights the lack of innovation on Google’s behalf, but the fact that the market as a whole considers Google Home to be a chasing product. One which Google has watched Amazon ‘innovate’ with and test the waters and then only after realizing the water was warm enough, decided to dip a toe in.

Which brings us very neatly to Daydream. Yes, by all accounts this does seem to be the most worthy of the Google announcements. Simply because it will create some form of unified, mobile VR world. If you use a non-Samsung Android smartphone and do not want to remortgage the home to get a HTC Vive, then Daydream is going to be a significant addition. That is providing enough manufacturers do all of the hard work. As like Wear, TV, Auto and pretty much everything else, it does seem that Google will be taking a hands-off approach, with a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality. It will be up to third-party hardware partners to bring to market the selection of VR headsets (and smartphones) and up to third-party developers to create the content. Like any good middleman, Google is opening the door and largely watch everyone else do most of the heavy lifting. But that aside, is this actually innovative or like Google Home, is Daydream just another ‘chasing’ product?

That was not an existential question as the answer is a clear and resounding yes. Google is chasing when it comes to VR and in a big way. While VR is the talk of the town right now, that is only because it is everywhere. Everyone is already talking about it, headsets are already available, content is already live and a lot of people are already making use of the platform. Yes, more will when Daydream comes to market, but when we talk about innovation, we are talking about leading the way. Genuinely created something that people think wow. Daydream might very well become a go-to platform for virtual reality and if it does, it won't be because Google was innovative. Like Home, Daydream is built on watching the market and responding to it. Not leading through innovation.

One of the other big announcements to come through was the confirmation that Chrome OS was getting access to the Google Play Store. Which by association means Android apps. Now, this is a big deal for Chrome OS device owners as it will make owning a Chromebook or Chrome OS running device an even better experience. But again, this is not innovative. This is something that has been on the table for a long time. So while it was surprising that Google announced it, it was only surprising because so many wondered if it would ever actually happen. While it was a good announcement, it was not an innovative announcement, and if anything, it was a really late announcement. However, we did also get a bunch of various micro-announcements that came through as well for the likes of Wear, TV and Auto. So yes, new Wear update, some more TV options and something or other about Auto. But again, these are just small and progressive announcements. None of the platforms saw any revolutions being announced as there was just nothing really to write home about for Wear, Auto or TV. If anything, for these particular platforms, Google I/O was a rather dull affair.

So what are we left with? Android N? Yes, a new version of Android which brings with it ‘improvements’. Like Google I/O as a whole, not exactly anything you can put your finger on but lots of under the hood changes. This is one of those middle or bridging Android updates which looks to pave the way for the next one. So while Android N will bring with it improvements, we are not talking about the design improvements with Lollipop or even the security improvements with Marshmallow. We are just talking about improvements, ones which will hopefully make Android O more impressive. Evolution, not revolution and certainly not innovation.

We also had updates on the ‘Projects’ like Project Ara and Jacquard, but again, these were fairly minimal with the confirmation that Ara will be available to consumers next year and in terms of Jacquard, a new jacket is going to become available. To be clear, one jacket. Not a wardrobe of items, not a variety to choose from, just a jacket. Which is slightly disappointing to say the least. If Google had taken to the stage with a complete fashion show equipped with a runway, models, a range of connected clothing, then while insanely weird, one at least could say that this was innovative, the future even. However, the announcement of one trucker jacket that is en route is not quite the same level of statement.

Of course, we have yet to even touch on the most controversial aspect of Google I/O 2016, Allo. While Google did actually announce two new apps at this year’s event, it seems much of the focus is largely on Allo. Which is understandable as messaging is probably more of a big deal than video calling at the moment. Especially when you are Google and you already have a messaging app like Hangouts and your competitors also have their own messaging apps like Apple’s iMessage and Facebook’s WhatsApp (and Messenger). On the face of it, Allo was pushed forward as one of the real innovative aspects of this year’s event. It comes powered by Google Assistant, it knows you and what it does not know about you, it will learn and at the extreme end of the spectrum, can anticipate how you would answer certain messages. Machine learning at its finest. But let's be clear, this is another messaging app in an already crowded messaging sphere. There is no reinventing the wheel here. Yes, Allo looks set to come with a ton of features, although at some point you do have to ask yourself, are they needed features or even features at all? Or are we just looking at a messaging app full of bloatware and gimmicks? After all, this is a messaging app and surely the only real feature you care about is the ability to send messages. How much do you care that Allo will let you decrease or increase the size of the dialogue to represent the difference between whispering and shouting? Or the ability for the Assistant to throw reviews into the chat just because you referenced a restaurant? How often in your everyday life will you rely on these aspects? Or will they quickly become tiresome and annoying with the Assistant consistently displaying predetermined prompts for you to use? "Cool", "Count me in", "On my way", "I love you too", etc.

When it comes to messaging, surely what users do care about is end-to-end encryption, security, and privacy and while Allo will offer end-to-end encryption, it certainly is not the first messaging app to do so and it does not even offer it by default. So not only do you need to activate it, but you have to know that you need to active it. As for privacy, well, keep in mind that this is an app that watches, listens and keystrokes everything you do - so that it can be of better use to you. So the privacy thing is a bit of a misnomer. Even with end-to-end encryption in place, Allo, is by design, an app which monitors and so it will only take one federal demand which legally compels Google to hand over the data. Secure? Maybe! Privacy? Not really! Gimmicky? A little!

And this also raises the issue of Hangouts in general. What will become of Hangouts and why didn't Google just announce these new features as coming to Hangouts instead of a whole new app? Well, this is a rather simple question to answer and is symbolic of Google I/O 2016 in general - it was more about the announcing than the delivery. Instead of saying the words ‘Hangouts is getting updated’, the impact is much greater when saying “Introducing Allo.” It would have been far less dramatic to simply update Hangouts and certainly less innovative. Plus, this does not really seem to be Google’s style anymore. The company does understand that people care about what they will announce at events like Google I/O and this is where it gets a little scary - if I/O 16 was anything to go by, Google is starting to care more about the announcing part than the delivery part. Which is a road which can lead to a dangerous place as this is likely to be more commonplace at future events, with the announcements now done and dusted and the powers-that-be going back to the drawing board and immediately starting to think of what can we announce next year? Not, what can we deliver next year, but what can we announce. If you think about it, what did Google announce at I/O that you can actually use now? The third developer preview of Android N was about it. Everything else is a 'coming soon to a location near you' title. Which does highlight quite neatly that Google I/O is an event which is becoming far more about the act of announcing, than anything else, and Google I/O 2016 specifically, was the event in which Google announced everything, but innovation.

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About the Author

John Anon

John has been writing about and reviewing tech products since 2014 after making the transition from writing about and reviewing airlines. With a background in Psychology, John has a particular interest in the science and future of the industry. Besides adopting the Managing Editor role at AH John also covers much of the news surrounding audio and visual tech, including cord-cutting, the state of Pay-TV, and Android TV. Contact him at [email protected]